Thursday, 21 January 2016




With Toronto’s winter weather returning this month to a semblance of its usual snowy self, it may soon by possible to partake in the beloved pastime of tobogganing in city parks. One hundred years ago, though, tobogganing was not a childhood game, but an athletic craze sweeping the Western world... with a supposedly seedy underbelly.


Front page of the Toronto Star featuring a 16-person toboggan built by Torontonian Walter Denis. Source.
The toboggan first rose to popularity amongst Canadian colonists in the late nineteenth-century, given a shot of respectability by the much-publicized construction of a toboggan run at Rideau Hall in 1872 to accommodate Lady Dufferin, wife of the Governor General and an early fan of the sport.

In the era prior to the automobile and powered flight, tobogganing was the ultimate thrill. Journalist Ed Ruthven, writing in 1884, found it:

“more than merely exhilarating. A quarter of a mile in fourteen seconds, the first part of the journey down a hill the descent of which is like falling off a roof of a four-storey house, is calculated to quicken the pulse to a point which ‘exhilaration’ is not sufficiently strong to do justice. Yes, tobogganing is becoming an institution and a hair-raising, breath-catching, glorious institution it is.”

Tourism brochure illustrating Montreal's famous tobogganing runs (1926). Source.
Tobogganing was soon part of winter festivals throughout eastern Canada, drawing the attention of American visitors, men and women, who flocked northward in ever-greater numbers to indulge in the sport.

A conspicuous part of the craze was the tobogganing outfit, made popular by Canadian tobogganing clubs. In 1891, an American periodical, Ladies’ Home Journal, proclaimed that “no more becoming costume has ever been devised than that which is sacred to snow-shoeing and tobogganing. The constituents are simple enough: a toque, a blanket coat, a sash and a pair of moccasins.”

Members of the Tuque Bleu Toboggan Club all decked out (c. 1880). Source.
Being seen on the snow hill in “the Canadian style” became so popular that American tourists prepared their ensembles, and personalizing them with their own colour schemes, in advance. Canadian photography studios specialized in tobogganing scenes (with powdered salt for snow) in which subjects could flaunt their outfits for posterity.

So popular was tobogganing, that a means of enjoying in summer was devised: the rollercoaster, a toboggan (or coaster) on wheels.

Critical to the success to tobogganing was the inclusion of women. Other sporting clubs could restrict female membership by claiming that their delicate constitutions could not handle the rigours of athletic activity. In tobogganing, commonly seen as a leisure activity, women could face the danger and demands of the sport alongside men – making it a breakthrough sport for women. The character of the “fast girl,” the expert female tobogganer, was created.


The sexual tension on this toboggan is palpable. Source.
Tobogganing, during the Victorian period, quickly drew criticism for the proximity, even the intimacy, of male and female participants. A guest to Rideau Hall in 1871 first noticed of tobogganing that “Ladies go in for it. I think they like rolling over and over with the gentlemen." In Montreal, one clergyman denounced toboggan runs as “places of immorality for young girls,” another argued that “the temptation young men and young women were exposed to on the toboggan hills at night was nothing less than moral ruin.”

It's a short ride from cider to grave. Temperance movement poster from 1887. Source.
So synonymous with sin was tobogganing that a Ministerial Association meeting in 1912 gave equal time to discussing the evils of the sport and the plague of prostitution rings supplied by white slavers. Toboggan runs even became a common metaphor for the irreversible downward trajectory of sinful living.

Tobogganing and demonstrator in High Park article in the Toronto Star. Source.
In Toronto, tobogganing drew the ire of the Protestant establishment. The Lord's Day Alliance, a powerful lobby group, singled tobogganing out as the most egregious example of the flaunting of the Sunday rest. In 1912, pressured by the Alliance and anxious to maintain the pious image of "Toronto the Good," the City Council banned the use of toboggan slides in parks on Sundays. Despite the public's defiance, city park slopes remained closed on Sundays until 1938.

Can you think of any other practices controversial in the past we now find tame?

Do you think anything we find scandalous now will appear risible in the future?

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